“Ghostbusters: Afterlife” plays the hits
It’s useless to deny it: near the end of Ghostbusters: Afterlife, when the spectre of Harold Ramis stepped in to help save the day, it got a little dusty in the room. Soft and warm where the original 1984 Ghostbusters was sharp and cool, this legacy sequel is all about continuing the work of our elders and honoring their memory — doubly so, since it’s directed by Jason Reitman, son of the original’s director Ivan. So it’s made with palpable love and nostalgia. I fell for it while not being all that interested in the story: it’s Gozer again, setting ghosts on the loose, this time in a rusty town in Oklahoma.
Taking the Ghostbusters franchise out of an urban environment (even the unpopular 2016 Ghostbusters, which I liked, unfolded in New York City) isn’t as jarring as I would have thought. The new setting of Summerville gives us nifty places for ghosts to hang out: a spooky mine (whence came the metal that built the haunted edifice in the ’84 film), a dilapidated farmhouse once owned by the recently departed Egon Spengler. Egon’s ignored daughter Callie (MVP Carrie Coon) heads to the house with her two kids Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and Phoebe (Mckenna Grace), who takes after her grandfather in her fixation on science. Throw in Paul Rudd as a geologist/summer-school teacher, who develops a snarky but genuine interest in Callie, and you have a recipe for a gentle, good-hearted comedy with more emphasis on family ties than on loud laughs.
As everyone knows by now, the surviving three original busters — Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson — turn up at the climax to finish their business with Gozer. Aykroyd’s Ray Stanton appears before then, fielding a late-night call from Phoebe. At first, Ray is hostile about Egon, but when he learns Egon has passed, he softens and saddens. I’m probably the only one who remembers the moment in Blues Brothers 2000 when Elwood Blues gets out of jail after 18 years and finds out, at a respectful distance from the camera, that Jake has died and nobody told him. I reflected on that here, when Aykroyd yet again must convey mourning for a fallen comrade. He doesn’t owe us this kind of thing, but it gives Afterlife some texture and emotional shading.
Unlike 1989’s Ghostbusters II, which re-introduced our heroes struggling to entertain at kiddie parties, this sequel puts the old-timers pretty much where we want them to be after all these years. (Oddly, Murray’s iconic character Peter Venkman has not only left ghostbusting but science itself, though Venkman always seemed like the type who shrugged and nodded at a quasi-scientific career because the work seemed easy.) Meanwhile, the young new cast, including a motormouth self-named Podcast, sometimes edges the movie closer to another ’80s movie that followed Ghostbusters a summer later, The Goonies (though, thankfully, it’s not nearly as loud and obnoxious). Whenever possible, Reitman apes the slick aesthetic of his father’s film — Rob Simonsen’s music bites big chunks from Elmer Bernstein’s original score (with the help of Bernstein’s son Peter: more family ties!); Eric Steelberg’s cinematography tries for László Kovács’ dynamic lighting, big on horizontal lens flares bisecting the frame.
Carrie Coon is wonderful throughout as a frazzled but sarcastic mother on her uppers, and when Zuul takes over her body she seems ready to take off into orbit as the possessed Sigourney Weaver did in the first film. But Reitman, perhaps trying to bring the movie in at not too much longer than two hours, turns her into a terror dog too soon. I’d like her to return for more Ghostbusters, if there is any (if there should be any). Ditto Mckenna Grace, who carries on the recent tradition of female ghostbusters. (Finn Wolfhard doesn’t register much except as the driver of the old Ectomobile.) But this film puts an effective period on the saga, for me at least. Unless the writers can come up with something other than riffs on the original, I’m afraid the bittersweet nostalgia of Ghostbusters: Afterlife is the sort of thing that can only work once.